Silence of the Lions: Why Do Big Names in India Never Speak Up?

Are our filmstars, sportspersons or industrialists unintelligent or unaware of what is going on in the country?

Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Anurag Kashyap at the press conference. Credit: PTI

Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Anurag Kashyap at the press conference. Credit: PTI

The united front presented by members of the film fraternity against the capricious decision-making and large number of cuts ordered by the Central Board of Film Certification against Udta Punjab has been seen as a welcome development. The industry tends to stay silent on most causes, even if they concern their own brethren, but here, many filmmakers and others turned up at a press conference arranged by the Film and Television Directors Association. Aamir Khan Karan Johar, Richa Chadha – the list is growing.

But not growing fast enough. Many of the really big names from the industry – whose voice carries far more weight than the makers of Udta Punjab – haven’t said anything on the subject publicly. Nor have they so far indicated that they would take joint action of some sort. Amitabh Bachchan has been much criticised for his comment, which most people have found wishy washy, but why blame him? If anything, he at least had something to say. Where are the others? If all the Khans had stood up and said, “we will not tolerate this-today Udta Punjab, tomorrow it could be us,” the government would have taken it much more seriously. As things stand, it has remained largely unperturbed; Pahlaj Nihalani may have even received a pat or two on the back.

Leave aside the film industry, which with its high profile attracts the most attention and criticism – when was the last time anyone heard a top industrialist say anything truly critical about a government policy or indeed the prevailing situation in the country? In private, fund managers, bankers and tycoons will complain about how achche din are nowhere in sight and how the economy is performing poorly. After a harangue at a social occasion, a top executive called up this writer to request that nothing of what he had said be shared with anyone, even though his analysis was no more than what newspapers routinely do. But none of them will go on the record. If anything, they tend to gush on public platforms and in the media about how these are the best possible times for India.

If businessmen remain silent on matters that directly concern them, how can one expect them to be vocal about issues such as freedom of expression or violence against the minorities or the incendiary statements by ruling party “fringe elements”? Do they not see the dangers to India’s pluralist ethos from the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Sadhvi Prachi? Unless they believe there is nothing wrong with the rising communal temperature, in which case one should be even more worried.

After the death of Muhammed Ali, it was noted that no Indian sportsman had ever raised his voice against social justice. Sachin Tendulkar, as one of the India’s greatest sporting icons was compared with Ali. Why single him out? His fellow sportspersons are no better. If this tells us anything it is that the powerful and the privileged in India tend to be the most reluctant to stand up and be counted. They appear to have no views on anything; if they speak at all, it is in general platitudes. They have vast numbers of PR minions whose job it is to keep them out of the media. Access and output is closely monitored – no one wants surprises in the next morning’s papers. Which is almost wholly unnecessary, since the media too is quite happy to play the game. The result is bland stories and dull interviews with nothing of significance.

Why should this be so? Are our filmstars, sportspersons or industrialists unintelligent or unaware of what is going on in the country? Don’t they have views? Wouldn’t they like to participate in public life? Surely weekend collections or annual results are not the only thing that preoccupies our stars and our magnates?

The obvious reason is that nobody wants to make an enemy of the ruling dispensation. No plutocrat aiming to game the system would like to upset the netas and the babus who have tremendous control over licences, permissions and policies. A film star – or indeed a sportsman – may worry about the tax department taking a close look at his returns. Better silent than sorry seems to be their motto.

But shouldn’t being power and popularity act as a shield and insulate the person? Why are these powerful people so scared?

Several top names from the world of business were sharply critical of the Gujarat government after the killings of 2002. By and by, they all fell into discreet silence; were they seduced by business prospects or threatened that their business interests in the state would be harmed? But, could the government really have done anything beyond a point? Are India’s top corporate houses so pusillanimous that they couldn’t have jointly stood up to a politician?

The government knows this and exploits it. Mumbai was replete with rumours some time ago that a business honcho, who had made a faintly critical statement of the powers-that-be, was in the doghouse and was finding it difficult to get an appointment with any minister in Delhi. Aamir Khan, after the mildest expression of concern about what was happening in India found himself attacked and trolled badly. The others get the message fast.

Yet, it is not merely personal fear or insecurity that stops our public figures from expression themselves freely. Their reluctance to rock the boat is not borne out of a lack of courage alone, but a lack of understanding of civic responsibility. Becoming rich and famous makes one part of an elite that begins to think in terms of class interests – politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, celebrities, they are all part of a cozy club that has a tremendous survival instinct. They not just need each other, but they feed off each other. They are ready to help, provided it is to one of their own and done quietly behind the scenes and without any fuss. Rarely do they face the kind of problems that the makers of Udta Punjab are facing; if there is a situation, there is nothing a phone call or a meeting with a bureaucrat cannot sort out.

Udta Punjab’s problems are but one of a larger sequence of troubling events in recent months. There is much else that is worrisome in India. Yet, who has protested the most vociferously against them? A bunch of writers (mainly from the non-English world) and students from different parts of the country. Neither is part of the elite establishment, and not surprisingly, neither has received any support from it. A Kanhaiya, from the most indigent of backgrounds, has much to lose and yet he puts up a fight; a top film star, secure in his riches and fame keeps his mouth shut when his colleague is being harassed. Are we then surprised that the Pahlaj Nihalanis carry on and the government doesn’t care a bit?

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  • Jaya Selvi

    Opposition lacks oratorical skills.


    The big Bs and big bosses are sitting on a safe net. They rarely appear in social films , let alone controversial films. Their films seldom face censor’s ‘ scissors’ . Hence, they are not involved in controversies. Mostly, it is the small budget films or small film makers who laboriously make socially relevant films that attract censor’s ‘eyes’ . They eagerly advise cuts at the slightest dissatisfaction while they are less enthusiastic about commercial cinema which contain more objectionable obscene scenes worth ‘ Cutting’. These multi- star often loaded with porn are given certification without a single cut. The hypocracy of censor board should bd exposed. The board has lost confidence and should be scrapped as it has lost its revelavance now!!

  • Vinay Tandon

    the silence of the celebs is understandable. In India laws and rules / regulations are instruments of harassment (and making black money) and have little to do with dispensation of justice. And to keep things that way, no government (they all have more or less the same ideology of avarice) is keen to take up small small reforms which together can become a game changer. But more than the celebs, the silence of the ‘elected’ except for spewing forth hypocrisy from public platforms, to matters of everyday concern, bureaucratic apathy and connivance and blatant misuse of things official and of power and all the corruption around seems to be what is doing us IN. and with impunity!

  • Aman Gupta

    History is replete with examples of reactionary nature of the elite class. Why should it be different in this age? The ruling powers have frightened the civil society into a shell, the mainstream media act as their hand maiden; that leaves us, the people as the last bastion of hope against such excesses. I do believe we are still alive as a democracy and will show them their place. Till then we can do nothing other than biding our time.

  • Salman M Khan

    In an era of globally declining values it takes only a Martin Luther King Jr. to make sacrifices or someone like Ambedkar, Periyar or Jyothiba Phule to go through the hardships. Only then can we expect people like Muhammad Ali and Oprah Winfrey to come up. The White Americans or the high Caste Indians can never do it. It was only Barack Obama who awarded Oprah the Medal of Freedom. We can’t expect reform from those who are benefiting from a system of social discrimination. Tendulkar never dared to speak a word to support Ganguly against Chappell while he was playing the game. So in an era of hot item numbers and money spinning IPL leagues, don’t expect anything substantial from the film or cricket legends.